03/18/2013 12:19 pm ET Updated May 18, 2013

The Chemical Industry's Political Machinations

Nearly ten years ago, CEH exposed how a member of a state "blue-ribbon" science panel on water pollution had financial ties to PG&E, a company that was the main subject of the panel's deliberations. The science panel was convened following revelations (in large part by the release of the movie Erin Brockovich) that pollution from PG&E had resulted in widespread contamination of drinking water by the toxic chemical hexavalent chromium [also called chromium (VI)].

So it was not too surprising to us last week when the PBS Newshour ran a story outlining the long history of the chemical industry's dirty work. Based on an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, the Newshour showed how the chemical industry manipulates science, bullies independent researchers, and undermines regulations that would protect children and families from harmful chemicals. Highlighted in the story is how EPA deliberations on the toxicity of hexavalent chromium have been hijacked by these industry schemes for more than a decade, while 70 million Americans suffer daily exposure to this cancer-causing chemical in their drinking water.

Ultimately, the Center concludes that the chemical industry's political machinations mirror those of groups like the National Rifle Association -- but with even more dire consequences. "Much like the clout of the NRA, the American Chemistry Council (ACC) is an industry trade association that often acts to create uncertainty and delay, actions that ultimately threaten the public health."

We've seen similar dirty tricks recently exposed in an award-winning Chicago Tribune series about the flame retardant industry. The Tribune revealed a decades-long campaign by flame retardant chemical companies that included creating a phony "citizens" group to lobby for the use of their chemicals and hiring an expert witness who testified falsely to government officials about an infant burn victim. California has now proposed a modern, scientific new flammability standard that would no longer promote the use of these harmful chemicals.

But if statements by the chemical industry and its apologists are any guide, we should all be on the lookout for more industry schemes in their campaign to prevent the state's new standard from being adopted. For example, one industry-backed "independent consultant" (who previously worked for a front-group established by 11 leading chemical companies) told the Center that having scientists on government science panels that are charged with investigating issues that could cost those same companies millions of dollars is "more a matter of a perception of a problem than a real problem, in my opinion." A representative of the chemical industry's trade group also stood up for industry-backed scientists serving, stating that, "Industry perspective is a bias but so [is] every other perspective."

Francesca Grifo, director of scientific integrity at the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists was appropriately shocked by these nonsensical claims about obvious conflicts of interest, saying, "That's completely outrageous. I don't know how anybody could stand up logically and say I got $100,000 but it didn't affect how I handled this."

Indeed, the evidence from other fields show that despite claims to the contrary, inducements from industry have proven to influence behavior of scientists. Studies of physicians, for example, have repeatedly shown that, even when they deny any impact from drug company gifts, doctors' interactions with drug companies leads to increased prescribing of the company's products and other "nonrational prescribing."

Even worse than over-prescribed drugs, the chemical industry's manipulations of science and political processes has resulted in real threats to our children's and families' health. According to a 2010 report, childhood exposure to harmful chemicals is responsible for 5 percent of childhood cancers, 3 percent of developmental disabilities, and 30 percent of childhood asthma.

As long as the chemical industry is willing to spend millions of dollars for biased science, we will all need to remain vigilant and skeptical. One great resource from the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) is Sourcewatch, a directory of industries and their public relations efforts to manipulate science and public opinion. A coalition of corporate watchdog groups has created Crocodyl for online research on specific corporations. The Union of Concerned Scientists and the Center for Science in the Public Interest both have science-watch websites to monitor and expose corporate conflicts of interest. The Center for Genetics and Society has a wealth of invaluable resources to aid in evaluating the claims of new genetic sciences and the threat of a new techno eugenics.

In their classic primer on industry propaganda Trust Us, We're Experts, John Stauber (founder of CMD) and Sheldon Rampton cite the central role of activism in the defense against media manipulation. Activism, they note:

"... brings us into personal contact with other people who are informed, passionate, and altruistic in their commitment to help make the world a better place. These are good friends to have, and often they are better sources of information than the experts whose names appear in the newspapers or on television. Activism, in our opinion, is not just a civic duty. It is a path to enlightenment."

So get active today! Don't let the chemical industry continue to take aim at our children's and families' health.